The inevitable fight between Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is heating up as the two men campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire following DeSantis’ official and not-very-successful campaign launch. But while the two are trading a steady stream of criticism and insults, it feels like a preview of the real battle to come.
DeSantis has coyly attacked Trump for having lost reelection, saying, “It really requires a two-term presidency to be able to do as much as you need to do.” Trump came back with, “When he says eight years, every time I hear it I wince, because I say if it takes eight years to turn this around, then you don’t want him, you don’t want him as your president,” pledging, “It’ll take me six months to have it totally the way it was, we’ll have it fast.”
That set DeSantis up to ask, “Why didn’t he do it in his first four years?” It’s a fair point, but one based on the assumption that competence and achievement are truly what Republican voters want.
Trump predictably took on the shifting pronunciation of DeSantis’ name—DeeSantis or DehSantis—saying, “You don’t change your name in the middle of an election, he changed his name in the middle of the election. You don’t do that, you do it before or after, but ideally you don’t do it at all.”
Asked about the pronunciation issue, DeSantis responded—with a smirk for the ages—“It’s ridiculous. These stupid things. Listen, the way to pronounce my last name—winner.”
A DeSantis super PAC has a bus trailing Trump around Iowa. Trump has slammed DeSantis for not taking audience questions at campaign events. And so on.
The attacks between the two candidates are predictable. Trump has been attacking DeSantis for months, in fact, with DeSantis’ poll numbers dropping over that time. The question has been when and how DeSantis would fight back. He has started doing so, but the current level of petty sniping is likely to—almost has to—escalate. This state of affairs isn’t benefiting either candidate.
Everyone knows that Trump is a guy who insults his opponents. It’s at the core of his persona. But if he focuses too much on one opponent, he risks looking weak—like he’s not at the top of the field mocking everyone, but is locked in a head-to-head battle with an equal. Trump also delivers his most effective insults when he’s feeding off the energy of a crowd, or the humiliation (real or perceived) of his debate opponents. Dribbling out small attacks for small audiences is not peak insult Trump, and it makes him look smaller.
DeSantis, meanwhile, has a pressing need to define himself for Republican primary voters. He’s trying to do that by hyping a relatable dad schtick, but if that gets drowned out by his feud with Trump, he has lost a valuable opportunity to set the tone for his campaign—unless he decisively wins the Trump fight. Being the guy who beats Trump at his own game would have huge value, but it’s a very high-risk game. And even his own supporters are noticing that DeSantis isn’t taking Trump on very much in his speeches, saving that for exchanges with reporters. “As of now, [Trump] is who he is running against, you know, like he needs to make the ticket before he can face Biden or whoever makes the ticket there,” one Iowa DeSantis supporter told The Washington Post.
It’s a tricky moment for both Trump and DeSantis, though much more so for DeSantis. Trump has to be itching to go after DeSantis full bore—which, make no mistake, hasn’t happened yet. “Nasty?” an unnamed former Trump adviser told Politico. “This is child’s play. You wanna see nasty? Stay tuned.” But his campaign probably doesn’t want him to use up all his best insults now, and is trying to balance attacking DeSantis with not elevating him more than necessary. Trump can’t afford to look threatened by DeSantis: He needs him to look small.
The stakes are higher for DeSantis, who is trailing in polls and needs a breakthrough moment. He needs to show that he’s tough enough to take on Trump, but he doesn’t want to be wholly defined by that fight—a fight he may well lose at the pure insults-and-dominance level. Being a “winner” is such a big part of DeSantis’ case for himself that losing an insult-off with Trump could be an existential problem.
A tough primary fight can make a candidate stronger, but it depends on the character of the fight. A steady stream of sniping that doesn’t deliver a triumphant victor could just wear voters out and turn them off. Some Republicans are worried about exactly that. “It’s a 15-round boxing match, and when boxers come out pummeling each other from the beginning, they’re not pacing themselves for the balance of the match,” one Republican consultant told Politico, while Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel has warned of “infighting” that could damage Republican prospects.
The feud between Trump and DeSantis may already be dominating campaign headlines. But at some point it’s going to get a whole lot bigger and louder and nastier. Both men know it, and they both know they need to come out on top.